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Martin Luther King is not your mascot

Martin Luther King Jr. stands in front of a crowd in Washington, D.C.
AFP/Getty Images
Martin Luther King Jr. stands in front of a crowd in Washington, D.C.

This article first appeared in Code Switch's "Up All Night" newsletter, about the race-related thoughts, ideas and news items that our team is losing sleep over. For first access every Friday, sign up here.

One cold January evening about 10 years ago, I was walking in Philadelphia when a stranger called out to me from across the narrow street. "Hey," he said, "Can I get your number?" I smiled politely and kept walking, but he gave it one more shot. "C'mon — it's what Dr. King would've wanted!" And that is how I met the love of my life.

Just kidding. I picked up my pace and never saw that man again.

That brief, ill-fated attempt at game was one of the more bizarre invocations of Martin Luther King Jr. that I've experienced. But it was, unfortunately, by no means the most egregious.

For decades, everyone and their mother has tried to get a piece of that sweet, sweet MLK Pie, from car companies to banks to pop stars to politicians (no matter their actual politics). And don't forget about the deals! A recent article in Forbes probably put it best:

"MLK Day is unequivocally about celebrating the life and legacy of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," they wrote (emphasis mine). But also, the article went on, "Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and even Martin Luther King Jr. Day typically bring about some great discounts." (Cue the swelling applause.)

And look, of course those examples seem cringey. But Hajar Yazdiha, the author of a new book about the struggle over King's memory, argues it's worse than that — that Dr. King's legacy has been used quite intentionally as a "Trojan horse for anti-civil rights causes."

For instance, at a news conference in 2021, numerous Republican lawmakers invoked King's "I Have a Dream" speech while arguing for bans on teaching Critical Race Theory in schools.

Those moves are from a very old playbook, Yazdiha told us on this week's episode of the Code Switch podcast. Take Ronald Reagan. As president, he publicly helped instate Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday. But Yazdiha says that in private letters, Reagan assured his friends he was "really going to drive home throughout his presidency the story that Dr. King's dream of this colorblind nation has been realized and so now racism is ... over and we can move on."

That play — of invoking a radical figure only to manipulate and defang their teachings — has proved incredibly enduring and often incredibly effective.

Author Hajar Yazdiha (left) wrote about Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy in her book, <em>The Struggle for the People's King</em> (right).
/ PR Agency
PR Agency
Author Hajar Yazdiha (left) wrote about Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy in her book, The Struggle for the People's King (right).

But it's worth remembering that despite his contemporaneous supporters, Dr. King was considered a huge threat during his lifetime and was incredibly unpopular among the mainstream. And that's no coincidence. Part of the civil-rights movement's success was due to its disruptive nature: massive boycotts, marches, sit-ins, and other acts of civil disobedience that put powerful peoples' time, money, and good names in jeopardy.

So while it's all well and good to celebrate a hero from a bygone era now that he's no longer able to disagree with any particular interpretation of his legacy, maybe it's more important to be looking at the present. Because the real inheritors of King's legacy today — and of the civil-rights movement more broadly — are likely acting in ways that make a lot of people pretty uncomfortable.

What keeps you up all night? Let us know below!

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Leah Donnella
Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.